Harvey Milk as Martin Luther King of the LGBTQ Community

“On this memorial day of events that took place in Stonewall, I urge my gay brothers and sisters to promise that they will fight. For themselves, for their freedom, for the country… We cannot protect our rights hidden in trenches… We are coming out to fight lies, myths, superstitions. We are coming out to talk about truth about gays, because I’m tired of being silent and here, I am starting to talk about it. And I want you to talk about this. You have to be open with your parents, relatives. I know this will be very painful for them, but imagine, how much pain they can inflict on you in the voting booth! 

Be open with your relatives, friends, if they are your real friends. Be open with you neighbors, colleagues, people that work in places that you eat at, shop at, be open with those people that know you and you know them. No one else. But for once and for all, destroy the myths and lies, get rid of the fabricated stories. For yourselves. For others…

Harvey milk. “The hope speech”, June 25, 1978.

 . . .

Harvey Bernard Milk was born on May 22nd, 1930, in New York City to a family of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. His grandfather was the founder of the first synagogue on Long Island and also owned a department store. As a child he loved to play football and… opera.

He graduated from State College in 1951 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. As a student, he worked for a university newspaper.

After graduating from college, he served as a diver on a U.S. Navy submarine for 4 years. In 1955 he was discharged from military service by the Lieutenant and he continued to work at a school, teaching mathematics on Long Island. He soon left the school and for the next 13 years he worked in all kinds of places – sometimes in finance, sometimes in insurance companies…

One day he left Wall street – grew out his beard and hair and joined the hippie movement. At the anti-Vietnam war rally, he publicly burned the credit card of Bank of America.

. . .

Until the age of 40, he was not at all interested in politics and human rights.

He was fired from his last job just because he looked like a hippie and refused to change his hairstyle. In search of work, he moved from city to city, earning some money in provincial theaters.

He met Scott Smith in 1970. They decided to live together in San Francisco and with the last money that they had, they opened a photo equipment store – “Castro Camera” on Castro Street.

In 1974, he founded Castro Village, an association of local merchants, and started an exhibition-sale, which became an annual event attended by hundreds of thousands of people.

After World War II, a large gay colony was formed in San Francisco. Police treated minorities particularly harshly, often even brutally – threw them out of their flats, frequently raided gay bars, and conducted mass arrests.

Harvey was outraged by the actions of the police.

Meanwhile, the queer community was growing. Some politicians realized that their votes would be important during the elections. Harvey also realized that gays could also influence the government and began to form a massive queer movement to defend their rights. He was also looking for allies, but could not find supporters in the circle of influential politicians.

It was at this time that Milk was able to persuade the trade unions of truck drivers with serious authority to cooperate. When beer company Coors ignored trade union demands when signing contracts with drivers, Milk gathered community members – they boycotted this brand of beer at gay bars. In return, the unions promised to hire gays on good terms.

It all soon hit the media and Harvey Milk became a recognizable face – he was called the “Mayor of Castro District”.

. . .

In 1975, Harvey changed his hairstyle, shaved his beard, put on a costume, quit smoking marijuana, and stopped going to gay baths – he had seriously decided to get involved in politics.

That same year, George Moscone was elected as mayor of the city, and he appointed a man as a police chief who had publicly announced that he would hire gays. This outraged certain groups in the society.

Milk tried to get on the city council twice, but he didn’t succeed. By this time, gays that already were in the political elite were happy about his defeat – thinking that they had gotten rid of him, however, their hope’s weren’t going to last very long.

In 1976, San Francisco passed a law according to which, the city councils would not be elected by entire cities, but only by specific districts. The population of the city was 750,000, of which about 200,000 were queer people.

In 1977, Harvey Milk was elected to be on the city council – he became the first gay man to be elected to such a position and who did not hide his identity.

In the run-up to the election, in addition to gay rights issues, he focused on child health, the need for free municipal transport, high apartment rental prices, and the initiative to set up a public council to oversee police actions.

For social diversity, a single mother – a Chinese and African-American woman – was elected to the council that same year.

After the election, she addressed the voters:

“This is not just my victory; this is the victory of all of you. If a gay man can win an election, then there is hope that the system can be fair to any minority if we fight for it. We gave them that hope.” 

The fight for gay rights swept across the country, and Harvey Milk had given it a major boost – with his oratory skills, his ability to use the media properly, and his humor.

Milk, a member of the city supervisory board, fought with large corporations and companies that were selling real estate at high prices, he also fought for the rights of senior citizens. With his recommendation, the city council passed a resolution on gay rights – 90 in favor, 1 against.

In 1978, Milk devoted a great deal of time and energy to the fight against the amendment to the law initiated by Senator Brix. The law issued the immediate dismissal of gay teachers.

His tireless counter-campaign paid off – the amendment failed!

During the same period, Milk broke up with Scott.

Milk always had a bunch of guests in his house: acquaintances, strangers, homeless, confused young people…

His last friend, Jack Lyra, a young man addicted to alcohol, was suffering from depression. One day, a tragedy happened in Milk’s life – Lyra hung himself.

Along with Milk, 32-year-old firefighter Dan White was elected to the city council. A good family man and a hero who saved several people in a fire. He was a conservative and religious man, a “faithful knight” of “family pureness”, but had a good relationship with Milk.

The city council had decided to open a psychiatric clinic for adolescents in the White district, in a former Monastery building, but voters went against it. This topic caused so much tension that White stopped talking to Milk.

Eventually, White started to resent everyone and everything and voluntarily left the city council, though he soon changed his mind and asked the mayor to bring him back. The mayor was advised to replace White with a liberal citizen.

On November 27, 1978, White broke into City Hall, first shooting Mary with five shots from a pistol, then rushing to Milk’s office and firing four bullets. Milk knelt down and White fired a fifth bullet into his forehead.

It had been only eleven months since Harvey Milk had been elected to the city council.

The jury found White guilty of second degree murder and sentenced him to just seven years and eight months in prison.

In the gay community such a verdict sparked serious outrage and protests, which known as the White Nights.

. . .

Time magazine named Harvey Milk one of the 100 heroes of the 20th century;

In 2002, Harvey Milk was recognized as the most important and well-known openly queer politician ever elected by Americans;

In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded Harvey Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom after his death;

In 2009, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger officially declared Harvey Milk’s birthday – May 22, Harvey Milk Day and a state celebration;

In 2008, a feature film about Harvey Milk was released, starring Sean Penn;

He was the Martin Luther King of the LGBTQ+ community.

Harvey Milk’s contribution and role in the fight for freedom is immeasurable for America and for Americans, for all freedom-loving people.

His murder is a bitter reminder that the road to freedom is dangerous and difficult.

. . .

One week after his election, Harvey recorded his will on tape:

“If it so happens that a bullet pierces my brain, then let all of the doors of the cabinet be smashed.”

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